July 31 is one of those days. If he were still here on earth, my dad would celebrate his 62nd birthday today. Many life experiences have been celebrated since his death — more babies, his grandchildren, have been born and welcomed into our extended family; deaths and burials of other family members; job changes; marriages; new home purchases; a few winters, springs, summers, and falls. The extraordinary and the ordinary. And the Chicago Cubs still suck.
If dad were still living, Joel, the kids, and I would probably make the short trek back to my childhood home where my mom still lives to celebrate dad’s special day. I imagine the dinner menu would include grilled steak and potatoes, lettuce salad with fresh veggies, garlic bread, Miller Lite, and maybe, just maybe, a slice of cake, perhaps German chocolate, with ice cream on top to finish the meal.
The past few years we’ve made time to celebrate dad’s birthday with my mom and incorporate some of his favorite foods into the celebration. This year, however, other duties call that require us to stay close to home. Maybe I’ll swing by my favorite bakery and pick up a slice or two of German chocolate cake at some point during the day.
Mourning changes, maintaining old traditions, and establishing new ones.
There have been years when milestone dates such as dad’s birthday, Father’s Day, and the anniversary of his death come and go without much emotion. Then there are the times I am ambushed by the rush of emotions that seem to come out of nowhere. A few months after my dad passed away, I was hustling through Walgreens to buy a pair of pantyhose. Yes, pantyhose — don’t judge. I needed to be at a church event about that minute, and of course every last pair of hose I owned had holes in places too obvious to ignore. The neighborhood Walgreens and their it’ll-get-the-job-done brand of hosiery saved me once again. As I hurried to get out of the store, a man approached me from behind and said, “Hey, how are you?” I turned around and the man then replied, “Oh, I thought you were my daughter. You look a lot like her. Sorry to bother you.”
That 30-second exchange with the stranger, some woman’s father, had an immediate impact on me. It hit me then that as long as I walk this earth, I will never again run into my dad by chance at a Walgreens or anywhere else. I will never hear him say, “This is my daughter.” I do, however, still see and talk to dad in my dreams now and then, and the dreams often involve him being really really happy to see me. Usually, at some point, we hug. And that’s how I like to remember my dad — a big smile, always happy to see me, and ever so generous with the hugs.
Several months ago I came across this unique (maybe bizarre is a better descriptor?) article about how 19th-century Victorians took photos of their dead relatives posing on couches, beds, and even in coffins. While the photos shown in that article are indeed a bit somber, some may label them downright morbid, photographing deceased loved ones isn’t so foreign to me. A few weeks after my dad’s funeral, an envelope arrived in my mailbox. Inside the envelope was another sealed envelope with a letter attached. The letter explained the second envelope included photos of my father on the day of his funeral. I did not and have not opened that envelope as I simply don’t want to see photos of my father in that state. I gave the envelope to Joel and told him to put it in a place where I wouldn’t stumble on it by accident. While the person who took these photographs was very kind and gracious in doing so, it’s simply not how I want to remember my father. At least for today. Maybe my uneasiness in looking at those pictures of him in such a lifeless state has more to do with me still not reconciling his death. It’s still so very hard not having him here.
Immediately after his death, many people advised that the grief wouldn’t get easier; rather, it would just become normal, more routine. And now I understand. It isn’t any easier not having him here; it just is what it is. And I suppose there’s part of me, maybe even all of me, that resists wanting to normalize that. While I won’t be headed back to my hometown to enjoy a steak dinner and all the fixings, I am remembering so many great memories and keeping dad close to my heart and in my prayers. And I will spend time looking at photos of dad … just the ones that are full of life and hugs, like the ones I’ve included here. Happy birthday, dad!